The optical viewfinder is dying. Should camera makers put it out of its misery, or put some effort into making it better?
Pity the poor, neglected optical viewfinder. These days, it is only available in a handful of compact cameras, mostly made by Canon (that’s the G11’s finder, above). An entire generation of point-and-shooters has never peered through an optical viewfinder, and thinks holding the camera a foot or more from their faces while shooting is the normal way to take pictures. Few realize how holding a camera to your face and that peering through the viewfinder as you shoot creates extra support and reduces chances for shaky pictures.
On the other hand, those of us who do peer through optical viewfinders—and prefer that method of taking pictures—find it an exercise in frustration. It feels like you’re looking through a tunnel. Typically, around 25% of the image is cut off, and the finders are so small that eyeglass wearers miss out on even more of the scene. Years ago, Dan Richards at Popular Photography coined an appropriate term for these kinds of finders: “Squintfinders.” Besides the squinty operation, there is no exposure information (unlike DSLRs, whose optical finders provide some basic exposure data), and in most cases, no focus or exposure targets.
(I’m not talking about rangefinders—the kind of parallax compensating optical finders that help you manually focus and can be found on the Leica M9—I’m focused on the little ditsy finders on compact AF cameras.)
Old tech that’s gotten worse with age
In fact, there have been no significant changes in optical finders on P&S cameras in over 20 years. Pick up any old film point-and-shoot camera and hold it next to a current compact digital camera that has a Squintfinder. Look through both and compare. The view is equally lousy.
In film cameras, you could get away with only 75% coverage. After all, you had nothing to instantly compare it to, while with digital cameras, you can look in your finder, then look at the live view image on your monitor and immediately see the difference. The mitigating factor was that automated printers tended to crop out some of the outer information in an image when printing it. While that might not have been a 75% crop (it was probably around 95%) the difference between what you saw and what you got was partially made up for in the printing process.
Some film P&S camera finders were actually better than the optical finders currently in use. Some had a focus target and lines to mark approximately where the frame ends when focusing up close, a rudimentary parallax compensation. My old Pentax Espio has such a finder. These markings have disappeared on current finders
Competition from EVFs
Meanwhile eye-level Electronic Viewfinders (EVFs) are getting better, and further improvements are imminent. Most offer full 100% coverage, and ample information (in some cases, too much information that blocks much of the image). The main knock against EVFs is that they are low resolution, and don’t scan well; if you pan the camera, movement isn’t as smooth an natural as with an optical finder. Some EVFs also momentarily black out at the moment the picture is taken.
While most EVFs have 230-490 dot resolution, improvements are coming fast. Panasonic’s G, GH-1, and GF-1 all feature EVFs with 1.4 million dots resolution, which is impressive. Hopefully other EVF cameras will upgrade. Epson this week announced a 1.56MP EVF panel which will likely make its way into next year’s compact EVF models.
To get an eye-level viewfinder these days, you are forced to make a trade-off: The low-tech, cropped but “real” image of an optical finder, or the lower-res, full-coverage, info-packed view of an EVF. And EVF is winning.
The technology disconnect
The disconnect between cutting-edge imaging technology and insufficient decades-old finders became obvious to me recently while playing with the Canon G11. It’s a high-tech marvel, with fantastic information, surprising image quality, but also with controls that feel familiar to traditionalists. But when you look through its finder, it’s the same experience you’d get with a film point and shoot camera from 1987. All over the Internet, they’re saying, basically, “great camera—horrible viewfinder.”
Is Canon, or anyone else producing compact cameras with optical finders, willing to put the kind of R&D into the finders as they’ve been doing to improve their digital camera’s features and performance. If so, I have a few suggestions:
1. Make them bigger. Eyeglass wearers will appreciate being able to see the entire frame.
2. Don’t crop the scene any more! 100% coverage would be ideal but might be optically difficult, but 90-95% coverage should be doable, and would bring the cameras in line with low-end DSLR finder coverage.
3. Show the focus target: Put a circle in the center of the frame, so the photographer can hit the focus target when just using the center AF sensor.
4. Show basic exposure info: Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, at the bottom of the frame. This will help when shooting descretely with the LCD display turned off.
For a high-end compact, such as the Canon G11 or Nikon P6000, for example, a high-tech optical finder that can accommodate eyeglass wearers and has a heads-up info display of some kind makes a lot of sense. Why stick an old-tech finder that falls short on a cutting-edge camera? With so many recent (computer-driven) advances in optical design, a high-tech optical viewfinder should be an attainable goal.
…or kill it
Of course, camera makers can settle for the status quo and stick to the current ancient optical finders. Users will be discouraged from using them, and eventually they’ll die out because studies will show nobody bothers with them because they are so user unfriendly, while EVFs will replace squint-finders on advanced models. That would be a self-fulfilling prophecy but where would that leave point-and-shooters who like optical finders?
Unless camera makers want to fulfil the self-fulfilling prophecy described above, I see no reason not to improve optical viewfinders. Imagine how popular a successor to the G11 or P6000 with an eyeglass-wearer-friendly, state-of-the-art finder would be!